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Flawed reasoning skills detract from interesting stories about underdogs
on 7 October 2013
I have read and reviewed all of Malcolm Gladwell's previous books and consider him to be among the most talented and energetic of journalists, with most of his work featured in The New Yorker. He also has superb storyteller skills. His "discoveries" tend to be well-known to those knowledgeable about the given subject. In The Tipping Point, for example, he discusses a phenomenon previous characterized by Michael Kami as a "trigger point" and later by Andrew Grove as an "inflection point." Or consider "the secret of success" that he discusses in The Outliers. For decades, Anders Ericsson and his associates at Florida State University have been conducting research on peak performance. He duly acknowledges sources such as Ericsson and should be praised for attracting greater attention to the subjects he discusses. That is Gladwell's great value.
However, in his latest book, David and Goliath, he demonstrates faulty reasoning, such as what Christopher Chabris characterizes as "the fallacy of the unexamined premise." He also has problems with causal relationships and this is not the first time that Gladwell confuses "because" with "despite." For example, consider his assertion that attorney David Boies's great success is largely explained by the fact that he is dyslexic. Overcoming learning disabilities may have been - for Boies as well as countless others -- what Warren Bennis and David Thomas characterize as a "crucible" that strengthens and enlightens those who emerge from it.
In this context, I am reminded of the fact that one of the world's most renowned authorities on ADHD, Edward ("Ned") Hallowell, is an author of countless books and articles on the subject, a child and adult psychiatrist, and a New York Times bestselling author. Also, he is a graduate of Harvard College and Tulane Medical School as well as the founder of The Hallowell Centers in Sudbury, Massachusetts, and New York City. Are these great achievements because or despite the fact that Hallowell is ADHD?
In his latest book, Gladwell relies too heavily on insufficient evidence or, worst yet, only on evidence that supports his premise. Yes, peak performers such as Boies, Richard Branson, Brian Glazer, David Neeleman, and Charles Schwab overcame severe learning disabilities and yes, 12 of 44 U.S. Presidents (including the first and the current) lost their father at an early age. There is no shortage of examples of women as well as men who have a "story of success" despite all manner of physical, social, and/or economic limitations.
Gladwell is at his best when sharing what he has learned after exploring subjects of special interest to him. As indicated, I admire his skills as a journalist and storyteller. What I view as his defective reasoning skills detract from the presentation of some (not all) if the material in David and Goliath, hence the Four Star rating.